CHITTAGONG, Feb 24 (Agencies): About 90 garment workers, mostly females, were burnt to death and nearly 400 others suffered injuries as a garment factory that went up in flames in a devastating fire at Kalurghat in the port city Thursday night.
Sources said rescuers, including army personnel, pulled out 82 charred bodies from the debris of KTS Textiles in overnight rescue operation. Two other injured workers died at the Chittagong Medical College Hospital (CMCH).
The injured persons were admitted to CMCH, Cantonment Hospital and two local clinics. As many as 400 wounded workers were admitted to the CMCH alone where many of them were stated to be in critical condition. The official death toll was, however, put at 53. Deputy Commission (DC), North of Chittagong Metropolitan Police Ruhul Amin quoted relatives as saying that around 50 workers were missing.
"The heart-rending scene was hardly ever seen before, at the hospital. The air is thick with groaning of the injured people and wailing of the relatives of the near and dear ones of the deceased," reported an agency correspondent from the hospital.
More than 1,000 workers, mostly women, were inside the factory when the fire broke out. Most of them managed to leave the building on their own, the sources said.
So far none of the victims has been identified as the large crowd continued to keep vigil at the site and at the hospitals.
Firefighters said the fire broke out on the ground floor of the four-storeyed building when a boiler exploded with a loud noise at about 7.30pm Thursday. Soon, the fire spread to the other floors.
The ground and first floors were used for garment production and second and third floors, for textile-unit mill.
Injured workers said they tried to come out of the building after the incident but found the collapsible gate locked.
The army was called in at 3:00am as firefighters and local rescuers failed to cope with the huge task of the rescue operation while the factory was still on fire with many trapped inside.
In the combined operation, the army personnel aided by the firefighters and local people pulled out mutilated bodies one after another.
The victims were burnt to death or suffocated, a doctor at the medical college said on condition of anonymity. Ten badly burnt bodies were found overnight Thursday.
Fifty teams of firefighters from Agrabad and other stations rushed to the spot to put out the fire but it could not be extinguished totally until 9:00am Friday.
By that time, there were still traces of fire as cloth and chemical dyes' sections in the basement of the factory.
The medical personnel from burn unit of Chittagong Medical College Hospital were shifted to the CMCH for proper treatment of the injured people.
The extent of damage could not be known initially, but the factory owners claimed that the loss could go up to Tk 1.0 billion (100 crore).
Deputy Commissioner (DC) Syed Mahfuz Ahmed and Police Commissioner Majedul Haq rushed to the spot after the country's worst fire incident.
Fisheries and Livestock Minister Abdullah Al Noman, former commerce minister Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, Mayor ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) officials visited the spot.
A three-member inquiry committee has been formed by the district administration to probe the incident.
The garment-and-textile factory was established by Wahidul Kabir, a Bangladeshi expatriate in the USA, two years back with an investment of Tk 2.79 billion.
Recently the apparel company received work orders worth Tk 1.30 billion from the United States.
Apparels are Bangladesh's main export earner, worth over US$5.0 billion a year. The garments industry as a whole employs about 2.0 million workers, mostly women, and exports mainly to the western countries, particularly those in Europe and North America.
Foreign Minister M Morshed Khan, also MP of the area, said that the government would form a broad-based enquiry committee.
The Fire Brigade has already formed a three-member enquiry committee with deputy director (Dhaka) M Kutubuddin as its chief. Other members of the committee are: Rashedul Islam Majumdar (assistant director, Chittagong) and Subhash Chandra Devnath (senior station officer, Chittagong).
The committee has been asked to submit its report within 10 days.
None was allowed in and around the gutted factory since 6:00am Friday. There was an odur of gas in the area.
Workers of the neighbouring industrial units said that there had been fire incidents at the KTS Textile more than once in the past, but the owner did not make any separate exit point.
They said many workers who jumped from the third and fourth floors died. The only gate at the factory was closed and the confused and panicky workers could not open it. They further said many might have lost their lives in the stampede inside when the workers rushed helter skelter looking desperately for a safe passage out. The workers of the neighbouring industries said many bodies were found on the staircase of the KTS Textile.
The BGMEA has already formed a committee to probe into the fire accident.
"We have sent a fact finding team to the spot," BGMEA President Tipu Munshi, told a news agency Friday. He said BGMEA Vice President SM Abu Tayeb is leading the team.
He termed it as an accident and said the BGMEA will try to convince the buyers about the compliance issue.
"We will also hold an emergency meeting to avoid such accidents in future," he said.
Since 1990, nearly 350 garment and textile workers have been killed and some 2,500 injured in 23 fire incidents at factories, the majority during the night shifts, industry sources said.